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Controversial campaign review committee is back for second year

ImageWisconsin Judicial Campaign Integrity Committee (WJCIC) head Thomas J. Basting, Sr. admitted that the amount of negative publicity the eight-member group generated during its first year caught him by surprise.

But he expects a quieter 2009 for the WJCIC, despite the fact that there is another contested state Supreme Court race.

“Did we learn a lesson from last year?” Basting said. “You know, the people on this committee are sophisticated, seasoned professionals, not easily affected by the kind of stupid criticisms we had.”

Opponents of the committee say the criticisms were justified and they question whether the committee should be back this year.

“If you look back, the committee would have probably earned a failing grade because instead of working with the candidates, it took a ham-handed approach to force subjective rules on campaigns,” said Darrin Schmitz, who was the chief advisor for current Justice Michael J. Gableman’s campaign last year.

Schmitz noted that there are already laws and rules in place to monitor election conduct.
“I think there is a reasonable argument made by many that the committee should be ignored,” Schmitz said.

Growing Pains

Last year, Schmitz called for the committee to withdraw from any involvement in the election after a series of e-mails relayed among members suggested partiality for incumbent Justice Louis B. Butler Jr.

Schmitz, who is not advising either candidate in this year’s Supreme Court race, said that the only way to address what he calls “credibility” issues is to completely revamp the roster.

“I think the problem can only be rectified by completely turning over its membership,” Schmitz said.

Basting, who chairs the committee, did not expect an entirely new membership, but he said that there is likely to be some turnover.

He declined to say whether that is a direct result of past allegations of bias, but a couple of current members may elect to step down this year because of past campaign contributions to either Chief Justice Shirley S. Abrahamson or challenger Jefferson County Circuit Court Judge Randy R. Koschnick.

Basting said the committee has a standing rule that anyone who has contributed to either candidate in the last 10 years is not expected to serve on the WJCIC.

He declined to reveal who the new members will be or which ones may be leaving the committee. A new roster is expected after a committee meeting in early February.

“Those e-mails were discussed at length and the criticism that came was from right-wing critics,” Basting said. “That will not happen this year.”

“It’s up to the people who were critical of the committee if they want to carry that fight over to this year,” Basting said.

Positive Impact

He also touted the positive impact the committee had in its first year, especially with the review of a campaign ad run by Gableman, which led to a formal complaint filed by the Wisconsin Judicial Commission.

The complaint is awaiting review by a three-judge ethics panel.

But Basting also said he does not expect the same “nastiness” during this year’s race between Abrahamson and Koschnick.

“I’m encouraged by the fact that both candidates have indicated they will comply with the rules of judicial conduct and denounce third-party ads,” Basting said.

He said the committee will again review and respond to campaign advertisements that potentially violate the judicial code of conduct.

Heather Coburn is heading up Abrahamson’s campaign. She said the WJCIC has yet to contact the chief justice about her campaign.

Koschnick’s senior campaign advisor Seamus Flaherty said it is too early to speculate on what role the WJCIC will play in this year’s race, but said the judge will “welcome any opportunity to restore and maintain public confidence in the process of selecting Supreme Court justices.”


  1. I am unimpressed by Mr. Basting’s description of criticism of his committee as “stupid.” Such name calling is uncivil and uncalled for. I also believe the term as he applies it is inaccurate. I wish my mandatory State Bar dues were not being used in this way.

  2. Justice Gableman will soon be on trial for the sleazy, race-bating ad he used to win election. That alone shows the need for this committee.

    The committee was criticized mainly by those used to drowning out all others speech. The public is fed up with sleazy judicial campaigns. Mike Gableman can hide behind the First Amendment all he wants, his campaign was outrageous. A complete disgrace to lawyers and the people of this state.

    I’m puzzled by lawyers who are offended by this but not by WisTAF and the Wis. S.Ct.’s mandatory $50/lawyer tax whose proceeds are then used to provide, in part, money for attorneys for illegal aliens.

  3. Mr. Davis said “I wish my mandatory State Bar dues were not being used in this way.”

    In Mr. Basting’s briefing to the State Bar Professionalism Committee’s August 17, 2007 meeting the minutes indicate he said,
    “These oversight committees are 501c3s, are independent, and are non-profits with no affiliation to the bar or Supreme Court.
    [ ]
    “Any campaign oversight committee / task force formed would be a separate, independent, permanent group. Its funding would come from a variety of sources; such as grants.”

    In WisBar’s report of the February 29, 2008 Board of Governors meeting,
    “Basting added that the committee is likely to be rechartered as an independent body after the 2008 supreme court election.”

    Mr. Basting said in response to a letter to the editor in Wisconsin Lawyer, May 2008
    “I think it is highly unlikely the costs of the committee will be charged to bar dues; instead, they will be subject to a ‘Keller’ deduction.”

    I wish that if Mr. Basting isn’t going to pay attention to what others say about the WJCIC, he could at least pay attention to what he’s said.

  4. Mr. Davis, I am unimpressed with your lack of command of the facts. Read the Keller decision. Ask the Bar if these costs were taxed to mandatory dues. I suspect the answer is no.

  5. “Ham-handed?” Darrin Schmitz, are you kidding? Tell me you are kidding. Do you have any clue as to how much hot water you have single-handedly gotten your client into?

    Let’s review. You talked your client into running a misleading campaign ad, an act for which your client now faces charges by the Judicial Commission and the very real prospect of being the first Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice to be kicked off the bench for judicial misconduct. And the defense you’ve left him with is that he has a God-given right to lie to the electorate. Good luck with that one.

    And who was the first group to call Justice Gableman on the carpet for this misleading ad? As I recall, it was this state bar group you call “ham-handed.” They didn’t file the complaint, but it seems to me they defined the issue first for those that filed the complaint.

    And now — according to press reports — your client is also under investigation by the OLR for allegedly engaging in illegal fund-raising on state time for then-Governor McCallum, way back when Justice Gableman was a backwater D.A. Wow. He may get kicked off the bench only to find he also doesn’t have a law license anymore.

    And guess who Governor McCallum’s campaign manager was back in 2002 when this illegal fund-raising allegedly occurred?

    You guessed it. Darrin Schmitz.

    That seems more than a little ham-handed if you ask me.

  6. Interesting. Mr. Schmitz thinks the committee should be ignored. Yet as soon as the committee announced its reorganization, we learn from the Journal Sentinel that WMC, Club for Growth and Coalition for America’s Families are all taking a pass on the election this year. Curious, especially since Koschnick is a far more formidable proponent of their cause than Gableman, who was a nobody whom no one had ever heard of when he threw his hat in the ring. Koschnick at least has some 10 years on a fairly active bench. Doesn’t sound like these groups are heeding Mr. Schmitz’ call to ignore the Bar’s committee.

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